While sitting at the long table (Ralph’s creation), a table customers immediately encounter when entering their place of business, Ralph and Mary Valdrighi recall happenings during their 30 years of owning and operating The Seabreeze Restaurant on Gwynn’s Island.
The Valdrighis, Richmond residents who had visited Mathews many times prior to 1979, decided to move to the county and buy the restaurant, all within 30 days. "We had eaten here many times before."
Ralph was not new to the food service business, as his father had owned a restaurant in Richmond. Although as a young boy Ralph had worked with his father, as his two boys worked with him, it was not his profession; not until they made that successful decision in 1979.
"We opened on Labor Day weekend," Ralph recalled. "Mary waited on tables and I cooked. We worked 10 to 11 hours, seven days a week. My sister came and helped us for 28 days. It was a tough first couple of years, especially during the winter months, but we got through it. Not having enough capital was the worst drawback. We wanted to specialize in fresh seafood with a menu catering to the everyday people, trying to give them their money’s worth with good home-style cooking. Raynor Diggs was our mentor. He was a man here on the island who helped us to learn about seafood, all its potential and where to get it to buy as much local products as possible." Flounder, crab cakes and soft shell crabs have been and remain the most popular items on the Seabreeze menu.
Ralph and Mary have retired from the kitchen and waiting service of the restaurant these days, but still keep a hand in on menus, recipes and general duties. Laura Morgan is general manager, but Ralph is there every morning and together "with suggestions from all the staff," they set up specials for the day. There are always five of them, whether the meal is breakfast, lunch or dinner. "Laura has been with us, on and off, for 20 years."
From an opening staff of two, the Seabreeze has employed 125 people over the years. Some of these were second generation. "We keep up with them all."
Keeping their customers satisfied is a practice the Valdrighis instituted from the beginning. Mary relates how they handle first-time soft shell crab orders from diners. "When people come in who have never had or have ever seen a soft shell crab before, we tell the waiters to watch for a look of dismay. If the plate really gives the customer some strong feeling of regret, we tell them just to bring it on back in the kitchen and let them reorder."
When asked if they do it again, the answer yes was overwhelming even, "with three wash-outs, two hurricanes and one November storm. Following Isabel, we had to completely rebuild. You can’t give up, just keep going. It’s been good to us."
Mary added, "If two people can work together all these years and stay married for 50 years, that’s pretty good."
The Seabreeze Restaurant is open every day except Mondays from 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m. Sundays and 8:30 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.